Art doesn’t so much mimic reality as morph, stretch, and bewitch it. The so-called rabbit holes, the night thoughts, the stray bits we dismiss, the teeming multiplicity of various “realities” – in the coming months, the Action Books Strange Fiction Series will showcase texts that delve into such zones. The world is always waiting to be more haunted.
The strange formation of the three red moons
Gray hills roll undisturbed as far as the eye can see, an endless drift. There is no wind, only mounds of bone dust, dead skin cells. The mirror-black river is motionless, thick as witch spit, and shallow pools of boiling acid eat at ashen shores.
The skeleton of a horse lies partially exposed in the side of a hill, its neck draped along a pile of dust, as if eternally at rest. Its ulcerated tongue lolls, and its teeth shine through rotted lips. Dried bands of fibrous tissue preserve some semblance of its previous form.
Thunder rumbles. Against the clouds, the crescent outlines of three red moons curl like long fingers, a maimed hand raising an offering to unseen gods.
An old woman kneels naked and sagging at the river’s edge, stacking flat stones in the mud. First, she places the largest stone she can find. Then she lays the next-largest stone, then the next. Her fingers are swollen and her hands shake. She slaps a handful of mud against the stones. The mud is everywhere. Its grit worms its way beneath her fingernails, into the creases of her eyes, the spaces between her teeth. Soon the stack grows beyond her reach. She extends her arm, head bowed in prostration. The mud gives way and the stones fall.
She begins again. Always, she begins again.
A chorus of chattering corpses, part one
Nearby the ground has given way to a large pit. The visible depths, where the discarded strata of millennia are as brittle and porous as aged bone, betray the desperate claw marks of the pit’s unfortunate occupants.
There lie a tangle of gray-skinned corpses, spun within webs of silver hair, their empty eye sockets staring. It is nearly impossible to tell one corpse from another, their defining features weathered away, skin tight against broken and strangely elongated skulls, mouths agape. Their spines are twisted into impossible spirals, and their limbs are knotted, legs bent back and braided around broken necks, ribs racked, fingers zippered.
The moons bleed red tonight, says one of the corpses.
Can someone please scratch my back? says another.
Someone has taken my femur bone.
Oh, excuse me. I thought—
How many cycles have we seen at this point? A hundred?
Far more than that, I’m afraid.
We’ve lost count.
A voice from deep within the pit laughs. Carve a tally in the dust and watch it disappear.
Soon others will join us.
Dumped and discarded. Forgotten like all the rest.
Maybe they can tell us how things go.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Maybe they can tell us how long we have to stay here.
How would they know?
The voice from deep within the pit laughs again. Fools. Imbeciles.
I wish he’d stop, whoever that is.
He is a menace.
Been here longer than all the rest of us.
He’ll quiet down if he thinks no one is listening.
I’ll quiet down when I’m dead and buried, fool.
Those nearest the walls mindlessly dig at the hardened dust, succeeding only in enlarging the pit and further burying themselves. Someone’s teeth won’t stop chattering. The one the others believe is the first occupant of the pit sometimes laughs. No one speaks. The rhythmic sounds of the old woman stacking her stones tick as steadily as the hands of a clock.
The contrivance of the traveling village
A winding caravan of surgeons pauses in a valley. They wear dust-whipped robes and face coverings that reveal only sun-bleached eyes. One by one they dismount their horses, undo the buckled straps of their saddle bags, and drop their leather tool rolls into the dust. There they remove each tool—scalpels, curved suture needles, arterial forceps, rubber hoses, bone saws, and head cages—and wash them in the gluey waters, where the dried blood blooms orange and motionless beneath the surface.
Every century, when the three moons align, the surgeons emerge from the lands beyond the black hills and assemble their traveling village. First they build a great hall of feather and bone, stables of tanned animal hides. They pave the streets with precious metals, raise high gates of gem-encrusted gold. They make yurts from tarps of human skin and scatter teeth for gravel. All of this—these shifting structures and wet and rotting walkways—are held together with complex webs of ropes and chains.
The village is a sight to behold, a filthy fascination that attracts the diseased and downtrodden from near and far. These poor souls appear seemingly overnight, aimlessly wandering through the crooked streets, sloshing through the muck. Some shuffle by on crutches, missing limbs, faces eaten by the pox. Others bow on bloodied knees, hold out their cupped hands. They beg for scraps of food, for salvation. With them they bring clouds of blow flies, shivering rafts of cannibal crickets, patrols of fat rats.
When the sun sets, and the shadows grow long and strange, those drawn to the village whisper among themselves of the merciful surgeons who seek new patients. They say that these surgeons can perform miracles, that they can liberate the spirit from its blistering and pustulant prison and make a person a part of something that can never die.
No one knows who will be chosen, yet each believes they are more deserving than the next. And so they wait, patient as the saints, content with knowing they will soon enter the kingdom of eternal bliss, a long-due reward for a lifetime of unendurable pain.
The spiral staircase unlike any other
Within a stately home within that decadent village, and within a quiet room within that home, exists a spiral staircase unlike any other. Hand-carved from a single length of ancient, resin-stained timber, its steps ascend miraculously without the aid of a central pillar.
It’s believed that this particular staircase was designed and built by a master craftsman who disappeared soon after its completion. It was likely commissioned by a prominent family, they say, whose name has long since been swallowed by the sands of time, destroyed by the misfortunes of war. For years, it attracted little attention, possessed and appreciated only by those drawn to its unassuming magnificence.
More recently, however, the staircase has become an object of near-devotional study. Congregations of black-robed monks flock to it, acolytes worshipfully studying its angles. They run their hands over its stained and smooth surface, savoring the aroma of its oils. They ascend and descend its form, count its steps again and again, and are inspired by the sheer ingenuity of the human spirit. The most dedicated among these gaunt-faced scholars sacrifice their entire lives in pursuit of their studies.
Stare into the staircase’s helical eye long enough, they say, and one can uncover the secrets of nature’s eternal spiral.
It has been written, perhaps in a fit of madness, that mortal man can harness the power of this dark design, clearing the path to ascend beyond the clouds, and there be ushered into the swollen terminus of his terrible creator.
A forlorn woman in search of entertainment
A single window burns bright against the darkened sky, its frame filled with the silhouette of a well-dressed woman. She surveys the sloping gangways and boardwalks of the village below and is transfixed by the intricate tangle of swaying chains and ropes, the flickering flames of the many torches and pyres.
When she grows bored, the woman puts on her finest jewelry, paints her face, and retreats into the depths of the house in search of entertainment. She moves soundlessly through the narrow passageways and cavernous rooms, the molded ceilings pooled in shadow, past curated collections of books and carefully arranged furniture.
She enters the darkly polished dining room and takes a seat at a long table. The room is empty, its walls lined with portraits of her pale-skinned ancestors, each frame bearing a plaque engraved with the name of its subject and the year of its creation.
Suddenly the woman is surrounded by motion, the warmth of bodies, the sounds of lively chatter and joyful laughter. The table is set, silverware gleaming. She smells cooked organ meats and roasted root vegetables. Someone taps her shoulder and she turns to accept a silver platter filled with blood-red terrines and fleshy jellies. Balancing the platter on one hand, she serves herself using a long-tined fork, skewering the pale and quivering meats.
Her plate full, she turns to pass the platter to the person sitting next to her—noticing only briefly that the paintings on the wall are now empty frames—and is met by the sunken features and empty gaze of a dead man.
The room goes quiet before the silver platter clatters to the floor.
The woman vaguely recognizes this man as her husband, who has been missing for a number of years. He has only one arm, the carefully folded sleeve of his uniform pinned to his shoulder, and his smell has gone bad.
When he speaks, his words fill the air of the room like a noxious cloud. I promised you and our son I’d return someday, he says.
The fear of the soldier adrift in foreign lands
First we heard the sirens, and then came the bombs—screaming from the sky. Half the village was destroyed overnight, leaving behind an endless pit where once there had been my entire world.
The next morning I decided to join the fight. You cried and begged me to stay. You beat my chest with your fists. I got down on my knees and hugged you and our young son, whispering that someday soon I would return, even if it meant walking through hell.
I made my way to foreign lands and joined the other men on the front. Bullets chewed the muddy fields and rolling clouds of choking gas blocked the sun. We were trapped in cold trenches, beneath ragged coils of barbed wire, surrounded by the dead and dying. Flakes of lye drifted lazily through the air. And then one day a procession of black planes passed overhead, trailing a wave of sudden death.
I awoke crushed beneath a pile of corpses, the men I’d called my brothers. My arm was trapped. Days passed in darkness. I caught drops of water on the tip of my tongue. Still, I thought only of you and my son—of return. I could not stand the thought of my child not knowing his father. And so I gnawed off my arm.
I waded through a river and arrived in this village. I don’t know what brought me here or how I found this place. At first I thought it was the village I had always known, where you and I had once dreamed of a future together, but this village is untouched by war. The buildings appear to be carefully built replicas. The ground seems to shift beneath my feet, churning like an upset stomach. Even this house feels wrong. The rooms and the halls and the doors feel like mirror images, reversed.
Now that I’ve found my way to you, after all this time, I’m afraid that you don’t see the right version of me, like I’m always facing the wrong direction. I’m afraid that I’ve become something unrecognizable, something on the wrong side of the way things were.
I don’t know how to find my way back. Where is my son? Why has he not come to see me? Does he not recognize me?
Why are you just sitting there? Why aren’t you saying something?
Why won’t you tell me I’m wrong?
The sinister games of children
Upstairs in one of the house’s many bedrooms, out of sight of the adults, two children play hide-and-seek. The smaller child stands still behind a window curtain, holding his breath, unaware that his bare feet are visible beneath the curtain hem.
The larger child finishes counting to ten, turns around, and scans the room. He spots the smaller child almost immediately but pretends as if he hasn’t. He makes a big show about checking beneath the bed, then the closet. Where is he? he says, creeping quietly across the floorboards. Where could he be?
Suddenly he throws back the curtain, expecting to hear the smaller child scream and laugh in surprise. Instead he finds the smaller child facing the wall, whimpering.
What’s wrong? Are you hurt?
The smaller child holds his hands before his face and continues whimpering.
The game’s over. You don’t need to be scared.
No, the smaller child says. It’s not that.
What is it then?
He speaks quietly. There’s a man inside the wall.
What do you mean?
Come close, the smaller child says. He points at a thin, jagged crack in the wall below the window sill. His eyes are puffy and tears roll down his face. He says you wouldn’t be able to find me if I crawled into the darkness with him. He told me I could win the game.
The larger child puts his hands on his knees and leans forward. He peers into the crack in the wall. I can’t see anything, he says.
The larger child sees small flecks of plaster and dirt along the bottom of the crack. An earwig shuffles out of the darkness. He leans in closer and sees how the darkness of the crack opens up into an empty space obscured by clouds of dust. It is so much larger than he would have expected. He feels a sickening urge to let himself fall into it.
The room goes dark as the curtain falls into place behind him.
Hey, he calls out to the smaller child. This isn’t funny. Where did you go?
A moment later he hears the smaller child respond from somewhere deep inside the wall, his voice faint and shrill, as if traveling a great distance. He cannot make out the words. He does not know what the smaller child is trying to say. The more intently he tries to listen the less he is able to understand.
He starts to cry. He does not want to be alone any longer but more than that—more than anything in the world—he does not want to be found.
The surgeons perform a miracle
Those lucky enough to be chosen by the surgeons will find themselves in a poorly lit operating theater. They will be strapped to a table beneath bright lights, the wooden risers filled with the black-robed monks, their faces gleaming with the ecstasy of witnessing a miracle.
The operation is a secretive combination of engineering and magic. First, the surgeons drain the patient’s blood through rubber tubes. Then they pump in their strange blue fluids, a chemical compound that causes stasis of the organs. This keeps the patient in a state of suspended animation and ensures they feel no pain.
Next, the surgeons turn the patient over onto their stomach and cut into the soft flesh on either side of the spine. Using suture needles, they thread piano wire around the patient’s spinal cord. These wires are attached to a series of valves and pegs, where they can be adjusted like the strings of a harp.
After that, the surgeons must move quickly. One drills into the skull nearest the brain stem while another uses a spiral-shaped tool to bloom the braincase like a flower. Another welds strips of metal around the newly opened skull to secure the head cage. Then they carefully adjust the pressure on the pegs to twist the spine.
As the body is slowly pulled into the shape of a spiral, the skull is pressed again the constraints of the head cage. Over time, if done correctly, the surgeons will continue to adjust the pressure as needed until the head elongates, twists, and cracks open.
All the while, the patient remains conscious, aware of the changes taking place but unable to feel them. They may babble or even weep but these feeble expressions are not the result of fear or discomfort but rather the sudden knowledge of leaving their previous form behind and becoming something new.
A chorus of chattering corpses, part two
If only they’d told us what we’d become.
If only we’d thought to ask.
Can you please take your finger out of my ear?
The corpse at the bottom of the pile laughs dryly. Fools. Imbeciles.
The corpses go silent as the villagers above roll fresh bodies into the pit. No one would admit it, but this is a momentous event. Each corpse in their turn relishes the kicked-up dust, the new entanglements and pressures. It is the most exciting thing that happens to them. In fact, they will go on discussing these changes with their neighbors—lamenting and celebrating in equal measure—until the next group of bodies are rolled into the pit.
One of the new corpses asks, Where am I? What is this?
Another round of rejects, doomed to eternal—
My god, he never stops, does he?
—wriggling among the worms.
I’m afraid to break it to you, one of the older corpses says, but you did not make it.
Make it where?
Each of us believed we were special. We believed we would be one of the lucky ones. Otherwise we would not have volunteered. Yet here we are—condemned to live forever, tossed into the bottom of this pit, waiting for the world to die.
I don’t understand.
Give it time.
Someone begins to weep. The others go quiet.
I’d give anything to taste your tears, the corpse at the bottom of the pit says. If only I still had a tongue.
The eternal turn of strata
The old woman at the river’s edge places the smallest stone at the top of the pile, which miraculously holds firm. She looks into the sky. There, the three red moons align in a radiant circle.
There seems to be a strange push and pull on time—eras and events overlapping and playing out against one another. The shape of the day spirals endlessly. Objects appear superimposed on flat images, flashing black trails. Memories wail like ghosts. And the thing that seemingly holds reality together, its very fabric, slides out of sight, always on the periphery.
Down in their pit, the chattering corpses slowly press into one another, decomposing but never dying, forming a solid mass of bone dust, dead skin cells. Over time, they turn into a pool of smooth black oil, settling into the spaces between things, seeking the planet’s darkest, deepest crevices, the heat of its molten core.
The planet goes cold before erupting in flames, releasing an energy capable of heating the vast emptiness of outer space.
And so it begins again. Always, it begins again.
David Peak is the author of The World Below (Apocalypse Party), Eyes in the Dust and Other Stories (Trepidatio Publishing), Corpsepaint (Word Horde), and The Spectacle of the Void (Schism). He lives in Baltimore. Find more at david-peak.com.